Author Archives: Danielle Toni-Ann McFarlane

Less Work, More Play!


Having lived my entire life in the USA, a country that takes pride in their ideology of the “American dream” (which, if we’re being honest, is working AT LEAST a 40 hour work week in hopes of becoming powerful and wealthy…). And furthermore, being born and raised in the big N-Y-C, I’m used to things i.e. restaurants, shopping malls, supermarkets etc. virtually being open 24/7. So, it was a major culture shock to me when I tried to go to a boulangerie one Sunday afternoon to satiate my hunger and to much dismay, found out that it was not open after I walked all the way there. As I enter my 5th week studying abroad in Paris, this French-styled siesta continues to be a difficult concept for me to wrap my head around.

The French love their time off! Most French people work a 35-hour work week with 5-weeks paid vacation time that is not including their time off for holidays. I’ve noticed many restaurants only open for brunch and again for dinner, and most remain closed on Sundays. Major shopping malls like Galeries Lafayette, BHV, and Printemps aren’t open on Sundays as well. This is so bizarre to me; Sunday, a day where major American cities would grapple at the opportunity to capitalize off of their tourists, is the day the French chose to rest. They seem to not care so much about such trivial things like making a profit. Why? Doesn’t everyone love money? The French would rather their long lunches at the nearest café and their Sundays off to spend time with their families or significant other. After doing some research, I propose that the French place a higher value on social interaction and leisure. Some may call the French lazy, but I say no: the French are simply in love with oxytocin (granted the immense amount of Parisian PDA I’ve witnessed). Oxytocin is a hormone that acts like a neurotransmitter in the brain and is released by the hypothalamus. In humans, oxytocin is thought to be released during hugging, touching, and orgasm in both sexes, it induces a general sense of well-being including calm, improved social interactions, increased trust, and reduced fear (Ishak et al., 2011).

pause cafe

Typical Parisian Cafe, near ACCENT (where I take classes).


A recent study looked at the social buffering hypothesis and the governing effects of oxytocin (Smith and Wang, 2014). The social buffering hypothesis states that social animals are better able to recover from stressful experiences (i.e. the work-place) through positive social interaction (Kikusui et al., 2006). The researchers hypothesized that oxytocin plays a role in the stress response in rodent models. To test this hypothesis, female prairie voles were exposed to 1-hour immobilization stress and then recovered alone or with their male partner to mimic the effect of social contact. They then treated immobilized female voles recovering alone with oxytocin or vehicle and female voles recovering with their male partner with a selective oxytocin receptor antagonist or vehicle. If the researchers did not use the appropriate controls, we would not be able to determine the mediating effects of oxytocin on the stress response. The researchers found that 1 hour immobilization decreased the amount of time female voles recovering alone explored the open arms in an elevated plus maze and increased corticosterone levels in comparison to female voles recovering with their partners and the controls (Figure 1). Intra-paraventricular nucleus oxytocin injections reduced behavioral and corticosterone responses to immobilization, whereas injections of an oxytocin receptor antagonist blocked the effects of the social buffering. The male partner acted as a social buffer which increased oxytocin release in the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of the hypothalamus in the female. Using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, the researchers found that immobilized female prairie voles that recovered with a male partner had a significantly lower level of oxytocin in the PVN compared with other groups (Figure 3C). By use of microdialysis, the researchers identified increased levels of extracellular oxytocin concentrations (Figure 4B). These data demonstrate that PVN oxytocin release is increased with social interaction.

I chose this paper to propose a reason for the short work weeks many Parisians possess. The French seem to understand the necessity of healthy human interaction when it comes to the everyday stresses of life. Money can make someone happy only for so long, but in the end, it’s the meaningful connections with others that are maintained over these lunch breaks and restful weekends that can aid in lowering stress levels and increasing happiness. Both factors makes for a healthier individual. Hmm, maybe NYC should shut down on Sundays… Ha! Now that’s never going to happen. Just the thought of Times Square without people seems rather ridiculous, better yet scary O_O!

Until next time! Au revoir!




Ishak W, Kahloon M, and Fakhry H. (2011) Oxytocin Role in Enhancing Well-being: A Literature Review. Journal of Affective Disorders 130(1-2): 1-9.

Kikusui T., Winslow J. T. , and Mori Y (2006) Social Buffering: Relief from Stress and Anxiety. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Biological Sciences 361(1476): 2215-2228.

Smith A., and Wang Z. (2014) Hypothalamic Oxytocin Mediates Social Buffering of the Stress Response. Biological Psychiatry 76(4): 281-288.

Mind over Matter

Versailles, the site of which the Treaty of Versailles was signed and which was home to arguably the most talked about French royal couple, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, is a beautifully constructed piece of art located about an hour away outside the Paris city limits.Visiting this enchanting palace was essentially number one on my Parisian bucket list and I couldn’t possibly let this opportunity pass me by. However, little did I know what I was getting myself into. Yes, I heard that this palace covered over 2,000 acres including 230 acres of gardens. And yes, I was well aware of the fact that it is recommended to take 2 days to see Versailles in all of it’s glory. However, I did not imagine that we (Beatrice, Maria, and I) would literally walk through ALL 2,000 acres (OKAY! Maybe we just explored about 35 acres). Let me not give you the wrong impression though,Versailles is by far the grandest thing I’ve ever seen in my life and perhaps my favorite landmark in France I’ve visited since my stay here in this beautiful country! However, as the day progressed, my feet grew weary and if my limbs could talk, I’m sure they wouldn’t have had anything nice to say to me.

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From Cite Universitaire to Versailles


When we arrived to Versailles, Maria, Beatrice and I were so fascinated by the immense beauty of the castle that we immediately pulled out our phones to snag some photos. We hardly realized that the line was growing to get inside! Once our photo-op fix was satisfied, we joined the line and waited approximately 1½ hours to get in. Once we were in, we received our maps and set out on a mission, our goal was to see the palace, mainly the Hall of Mirrors (historically where the Treaty of Versailles was signed), Marie Antoinette’s estate, and virtually everything else in between. There was so much to see! I could not believe it. The palace was huge, and the gardens were vast!


The chateau!


By the time we walked throughout the palace, my feet were tired and we still had to cross from one end of the garden to the next to see Marie Antoinette’s estate! In all we walked at least 5 miles by the time we got to the estate; by this time it was around 4pm (We entered around 11AM, I blame it on our multiple photo-ops…) and my legs were crying! Maria and Beatrice however encouraged me to engage in positive thoughts and that my pain was all in my head. The art of mindfulness which is bringing attention to the state of your present being and having a nonjudgmental attitude towards it, is something that I’ve started practicing at the start of this year to help me cope with the daily stresses of life. Once I regrouped, I became mindful of the present so that I could take in the pleasures of Versailles appropriately and Voila! my leg pain vanished and my mood and energy increased.


From left to right: Me, Maria, Beatrice


Interestingly enough, a study done in 2011 looked at the effects of how practicing mindfulness attenuates pain. Gard et al. hypothesized that modulation through mindfulness involves decreased activity in the brain pre-frontal cortex (PFC), and increased activation in regions involved in sensory processing of pain, such as the posterior insula and the prefrontal cortex. To perform this study, the researchers recruited experts on the practice of mindfulness and individuals who had no experience with this sort of meditation. They placed an electrode in participants left arm. Two conditions were observed, a mindfulness condition and a baseline condition. During the mindfulness condition, participants were asked to bring their attention to the skin surface underneath the electrode on their forearm and to observe the sensations related to the stimuli, making sure to be mindful of the stimuli. During the baseline condition, participants were instructed to not engage in any form of meditation. Three transcutaneous stimuli were randomly delivered. At the end of each test, participants were asked to rate the intensity, unpleasantness, and anxiety of anticipation for the stimuli.

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Pain (a) intensity (b) unpleasantness (c) anticipatory anxiety ratings for mindfulness practitioners and control.

The researchers found that experts in mindfulness had statistically significant lower reported scores for unpleasantness when they implemented their mindfulness technique as opposed to when they did not implement their technique. For controls there was no significant difference in their self-reported unpleasantness scores for baseline and mindfulness. For pain intensity, there was no observable significant difference between controls and mindfulness practitioners. This suggests that for experts they are able to perceive their pain differently which becomes their reality.

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Activation of brain due to stimulation. A) Experts B) Control


The researchers also found increased posterior insula activity and decreased lPFC activity when participants (both experts and control) were administered the sensation and practiced mindfulness. They proposed that focusing attention on the sensory aspects of the stimulus is related to increased activation in the posterior insula, which is thought to be involved in  sensory processing. The second component of mindfulness, the nonjudgmental and accepting attitude, could be described as cognitive disengagement, and thus an absence of cognitive control, which is why there is a  decrease in the lPFC.


Me, being mindful.


My ability to be mindful of my weary feet and to accept my circumstance for what it was, allowed my perception of my pain to diminish drastically! Who knew that this coping technique I have so recently learned could positively affect my body such a way? Because of this technique, I was able to enjoy all of Versailles and felt pretty accomplished in the end. Versailles was totally worth it!



Gard T, Holzel B, Sack A, Hempel H, Lazar S, Vaitl D, Ott U (2011) Pain Attenuation through Mindfulness is Associated with Decreased Cognitive Control and Increased Sensory Processing in the Brain. Cerebral Cortex 22(11): 2692-2702.